In December 2007 University Press of America released Gary Wyatt’s book, Family Ties: Relationships, Socialization, and Home Schooling. Though the book contains less than sixty pages of text, Wyatt has many interesting things to say, some of them fairly novel in the literature on homeschooling.
Wyatt is a sociologist of the qualitative variety, which means he eschews surveys, statistical analysis, and claims of unbiased objectivity. Instead he offers here the results of twelve years as a participant observer in the homeschooling world. Wyatt states from the outset in a very forthright manner his own orientation and experience with homeschooling (he and his wife homeschooled two of their three boys from 5th and 3rd grade on, and the third boy begun homeschooling but was allowed to attend public schools when he expressed an interest in doing so). Almost all of what he reports in the book comes from his twelve years of experience in the movement, but this is no memoir. It’s a series of generalizations about the homeschooling movement based on “field notes” Wyatt has been taking for over a decade. Most books on homeschooling are pretty obviously written either by movement insiders who usually use their work to advocate for homeschooling or provide assistance to other homeschoolers, or by outside scholars who approach homeschooling either to critique it or to understand it as one might wish to understand a foreign culture. Wyatt’s book is a rare combination of insider intimacy wedded to outsider background knowledge. He’s not the only homeschooling academic to have written on the topic of course, but he’s one of the very few who have done so with primarily academic rather than apologetic motives.
In a later post I’ll comment on some of the interesting things Wyatt has to say along the way, but here let me focus on his main argument. Wyatt believes that for too long scholars trying to understand homeschooling have focused too exclusively on the religious and academic motives driving parents toward this option. They have done so, he believes, because that’s the sort of thing parents tend to say in brief interviews on on questionnaires. But when you get to know homeschooling parents more deeply, Wyatt maintains, you find other motivations that are at least as significant. For Wyatt, many parents are homeschooling for two other reasons as well. First, they are groping toward an alternative understanding of the family than that currently dominant in mainstream America. They want their family relationships to be more important than such relationships seem to be elsewhere, and homeschooling is used as an effective strategy for strenghtening the bonds between parents (mothers especially) and their children. Second, parents want to use this strengthened family as a resource to help their children resist what many of them take to be some destructive forces that pervade the mainstream American culture and especially youth and school culture: forces like cruelty, anti-intellectualism, moral permissivism, ironic detachment, and indecorous behavior.
These are certainly interesting claims, and I’m glad Wyatt is making them. But I think he overstates a bit just how novel these insights in fact are. Mitchell Stevens’ excellent study, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement., for example, made much the same point about parental motivation. Stevens found that all homeschoolers, whatever their religious or pedagogical orientation, tended to share a deep-seated commitment to nourishing their children’s individuality and to believe that they could do so better than formal institutions. And it has been common practice for years now to turn the criticism that homeschools don’t socialize children well on its head by arguing, as John Holt did back in the late 1970s, in the very first issue of his newsletter Growing Without Schooling, “if I had no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school (and I have many), the social life would be reason enough…”
Novel or not, Wyatt’s insights here are certainly true and are delivered in readable, thoughtful prose in this welcome addition to the literature on homeschooling.